On Sept. 1, a cross section of workers, young and old, employed and unemployed, convened for a Workers’ Assembly in Baltimore. They testified and voted affirmatively for three action proposals: 1) to call on people from around the country to join Baltimore in marking the 75th anniversary of the enactment of the first minimum wage on Oct. 24, with protests to raise workers’ wages; 2) to conduct a major statewide campaign for a $15-an-hour minimum wage; and 3) to continue to build a movement for workers’ assemblies that would defend and organize for the rights of all workers, regardless of place of employment or whether they presently had a job, and that would include all of the community, particularly youth.
Crystal Richardson, a young worker, testified about how badly her boss had treated her and how her work hours had been cut to eight hours — just one shift a week. She was so enthusiastic about the action proposals that she raised an amendment to call for building workers’ assemblies all across the country.
Richardson explained, “I have family and friends in Florida who are suffering terribly; they need a workers’ assembly there as much as in Baltimore.” She had become involved in the Workers’ Assembly effort through protests called by the People’s Power Assembly around Trayvon Martin’s case.
The Workers’ Assembly was called by the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly and the Baltimore Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and was initiated and proposed at a Poor People’s Campaign March in May.
The Rev. C. D. Witherspoon, Baltimore SCLC president, exclaimed, “We don’t need a minimum wage — we need a living wage.” Referring to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement for economic justice, he explained that the Workers’ Assembly grew out of the 2013 Poor People’s Campaign and the need to fight poverty.
Fred Mason, president of the Maryland and D.C. AFL-CIO Council, electrified the audience in his opening talk. He carefully quoted from the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, explaining that people had the right to rebel, that when “any form of government became destructive to these ends — the people have the right to alter or abolish it.”
He referenced the more than 50 percent unemployment rate for Black youth and other injustices to explain that the government clearly did not serve the people. Mason also spoke about people’s movements around the world, including Brazil, stressing that protest in the streets was necessary.
Mason explained that if the minimum wage had kept pace with the cost of living, it would be $15.23 an hour. He also stated that the union movement “needed to have transformative relations with others engaged in the struggle.”
The assembly ran 90 minutes over its scheduled time due to the excitement of those who attended and testified.
Some of the riveting testimony included airport worker Yaseen Abdul-Malik, a member of UNITE HERE Local 7, who described his terrible working conditions and low pay at the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. He explained, “I have to work two jobs that have damaged my leg. I cannot afford the surgery to correct the damage, and as a result I might lose my leg.” Abdul-Malik urged attendees to sign a bill of rights for airport workers and to support his union’s effort to organize low-paid airport workers.
May 1 Immigrant and Workers Rights Coalition Co-Coordinator Teresa Gutiérrez got a standing ovation when she added the struggle for immigrant rights, justice for transgender victims of violence, and opposing the war on Syria to the day’s discussion.
Retired workers also spoke, along with those who had no jobs. Many younger delegates listened raptly, despite the lateness of the hour as Vivian Weinstein described her younger life as a low-wage worker. She urged the group to not forget those who are retired and their problems.
Representatives from the American Federation of Government Employees raised the conditions of low-paid, furloughed government workers, while those from the Food and Commercial Workers union described the poverty wages and no benefits of Walmart workers. Even musicians from a local band testified about how they were abused by club owners. They offered to hold benefits for the campaign to raise wages.
The meeting was co-chaired by Andre Powell, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees delegate to the Baltimore Metropolitan AFL-CIO Council, and Sharon Black, representing the People’s Power Assembly.